Sixteen Israelis killed in two attacks

West Bank shooting, Jerusalem bombing injure more than 50

March 03, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian gunmen opened fire today on Israeli motorists waiting at an army checkpoint in the West Bank, killing seven people and wounding four seriously, the military said.

The attack came just 12 hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem late yesterday, killing nine Israelis, including several children, and wounding more than 50.

The blast occurred an hour after the end of the Jewish Sabbath on a narrow street in Beit Yisrael, adjacent to the better-known religious enclave of Mea Shearim, and was the deadliest attack in Israel since Dec. 2.

The two attacks ended a week in which Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants seemed to carefully choose their targets to cause the maximum pain.

Police said the bomber detonated a large device strapped to his chest as he stood next to a group of mothers with baby strollers near the school's guesthouse entrance. Five children were killed, including an 18-month-old girl.

Four cars parked along the street burst into flames. Blood splattered three stories up the sides of a stone building, and an acrid smell permeated the warm night. Witnesses, many ultra-Orthodox dressed for prayer services, described a scene so gruesome that they became sick and had to leave.

"I saw three bodies on the ground, and people were on fire near the cars," said Yehuda Ruzorsky, 19, a student from Long Island, N.Y. "People were burning alive, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I felt so helpless, but I just couldn't help."

The bomber struck at the precise moment to exact a large number of casualties - just as classes on religious thought at the religious school had ended and students and others filled the small neighborhood streets to enjoy a few hours of free time.

A militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah political faction, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack and called it a retaliation for assaults Thursday on two West Bank refugee camps. It identified the bomber as Mohammed Ahmed Dararmeh, 19, from a refugee camp in Bethlehem.

Israel regards the two Balata and Jenin refugee camps as terrorist strongholds.

The brigades said one of its members carried out an unrelated attack last night when an Israeli police officer who was riding a motorcycle near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank near Bethlehem was shot and killed.

Arafat and Israeli officials condemned the bombing in Jerusalem.

But Arafat cautioned that the "Israeli government carries full responsibility for this latest escalation" because of a series of army attacks during the past two weeks.

Israeli officials, calling the attack "murder for murder's sake," blamed Arafat for failing to crack down on militant groups.

And early today, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles at Palestinian Authority headquarters and a small factory in Bethlehem. The Israeli military said the strike was retaliation for the Jerusalem bombing.

"[Last night's] attack just proves that the Palestinians are engaged in indiscriminate killing," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "All these nice peace initiatives we are talking about now can't get off the ground with the level of violence the way it is."

U.S. officials called the attack a "terrorist outrage" and renewed calls for Arafat to end such attacks.

Today's shooting attack took place at an Israeli army roadblock near the Palestinian village of Silwad and the Jewish settlement of Ofra. Motorist Eli Barashi said he was about 300 yards from the checkpoint at the time. "I heard shooting and I saw the soldiers firing back to the east. As I stood there somebody was hit and fell and shouted for a medic. He was about five yards from me. One man who came out of a building was also hit. I couldn't be of any use so I turned round and left to get help," Barashi told Israel Radio.

Jewish settler leaders said the victims were soldiers and civilians waiting at the checkpoint.

The assaults and counter-assaults are occurring at a furious pace - with civilians, soldiers, gunmen and children counted daily among the casualties. Each side's horror is the other side's victory. In the past two weeks, more than 20 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks and 45 Palestinians killed by Israel's army during a series of helicopter and warplane attacks and raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Twenty-two of the 45 Palestinian fatalities occurred in the two West Bank refugee camps that the Israeli army stormed Thursday, prompting some of the fiercest fighting in the recent conflict. Troops withdrew from one camp last night and were searching homes in the second yesterday.

In the Israeli capital, angry crowds filled the streets of Beit Yisrael and Mea Shearim, hurling stones, carrying signs reading "Death to the Arabs" and demanding military reprisals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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